Thursday, November 29, 2012

Back to Frank Black: A Reflection




In the year 1999, when Chris Carter’s Millennium (1996 – 1999) was still airing on Fox TV, my wife and I purchased our first house together, a charming, one-hundred year old white Dutch Colonial. 

We had not been in our new home for but six weeks when, unfortunately, we were victims of a crime.

On the very day my wife graduated from her grad school program in psychology, a man broke into our home, and stole her computer (which had her thesis on it…) and my video camera (which still had inside it new footage from the no-budget film I was making, Annie Hell.)

Dirty, mud-caked footprints from the robber dotted the once-pristine white sofa we had recently purchased for the living room, and a window was pried open.  

I’ve never forgotten those footprints. 

The damage, of course, was worse than they immediately indicated.  The dirty footprints had also trampled my wife and me, at least metaphorically-speaking.  I still remember my wife crying in our family room, feeling…violated.

Not long after that day…I painted the house yellow. 

And today I’m showing you the photographs to prove it. 

Frank Black's yellow house.


..And mine, circa 1999.

I painted the house yellow in honor of Frank Black’s yellow house on Ezekiel Drive in Millennium.    

And there was something immensely cathartic in that affirmative act of turning our Dutch Colonial yellow.

It was, as Chris Carter would describe it, a “painting away of the darkness” we had experienced together.  The yellow house helped us regain and reclaim our dream, somehow, some way.

We lived happily, safely, and proudly in our own, beautiful yellow house for over a decade following that incident, and my newborn son came home from the hospital to live there too, in 2006.  We moved away not long ago, but still, I sometimes go back to that yellow house in my memory.

I don’t know that this personal story is particularly important or perhaps even that interesting to read, but I believe that overall, it points to the fact that Chris Carter’s Millennium deeply and irrevocably influenced those viewers who were open enough to experience it, and engage with it.

In my “business,” I don’t often encounter TV programs that function as complex works of art first, and exercises in commerce second, but that’s exactly what Millennium represents to me.  

I’ve written these words before, but they still seem true and vital today:  Chris Carter created this particular TV series with a sense or artistry that is largely unparalleled in the TV medium.   If you’re a fan, I think you know what I mean. 

There’s this…purity of vision about Millennium. 

And it stems in part from the symbol of the yellow house. You get the sense watching the series that Carter was allowed to express himself in an unfettered way, and that in creating the series, he reached deep down inside himself in a very potent and honest way.

Given this inception, it’s no surprise to me that, some thirteen years after the series was canceled, I hold in my hands a book called Back to Frank Black, a tome dedicated to what Millennium represents and means. 

I suspect that, much like me, many other fans of the series own yellow houses, or in some other meaningful way connect Frank Black’s travails to those from their own lives.

The book itself is a remarkable achievement.

At a whopping 510 pages in length, it features in-depth interviews with  luminaries such as Chris Carter, Frank Spotnitz, Lance Henriksen, Klea Scott, Kristen Cloke, Meghan Gallagher, Tom Wright, Brittany Tiplady, James Morgan, Glen Wong, Erin Maher, Kay Reindl, Chip Johannessen, Michael Perry, Robert McLachlan, Sarah Jane Redmond, and Mark Snow.

And impressively, standing side-by-side these first person accounts of the making the series are several remarkable essays about what the series symbolizes to various writers and artists.   

Each writer who pens an essay in the book “sees” the series differently…and with tremendous individuality. 

Again, this is precisely what great art can achieve.  It communicates something that is ultimately received, interpreted, and explained by the likes of folks such as Joseph Maddrey, Brian Dixon, or Gordon Roberts.

The book opens with a foreword from none other than Lance Henriksen, and he describes his memorable character, Frank Black, as a person with “the chess player’s eye for detail” in a world of, essentially, conspiracy unbound. 

Frank Spotnitz follows-up Henriksen’s piece with another foreword that focuses on the second half of the actor’s equation, a comment in part on “the darkness that we fear in the real world.”  His piece also takes us back to the creation of the pilot, and provides us a window on that time and place.

Spotnitz’s words are followed up by an introduction from Chris Carter, and he describes Frank Black as a “man dealing with an existential problem. Something terrible is going to happen, the clock is ticking, and all the responsibility is on him.” 

Like Henriksen’s assessment of Black, this description from Carter gets at the nature of the character at Millennium’s heart. 

As a critic who values historical context as a key to unlocking visual texts, I was also gratified to read here Carter’s description of TV programs as “a product of influences.”  If a show is “good,” the artist suggests, “it is a reflection of the time it was created, and captures our hopes and fears.”

Beyond the front material and interviews, a group of talented writers help to explain how the series indeed captured those hopes and fears at the end of last century. 

I’ll enumerate just a few highlights:

Joseph Maddrey writes about Millennium as a product of the fin de siècle movement, and compares Black explicitly to Sherlock Holmes.  He also has a few great lines comparing the natures of Fox Mulder and Frank Black.

Paul Clark, meanwhile excavates the indelible Henriksen mystique and explains how it interacts with the character Carter first created on the page. 

Gordon Roberts intriguingly expounds on the modern idea of “families under siege” and contextualizes Frank’s interaction with the Millennium Group in terms of such movies as The Godfather and TV fare like The Sopranos.  In other words, Frank must choose between his family, and a version of the “mob,” a secret society family. 

Joe Tangari contributes a brilliant survey too, explaining how popular music is utilized in the series over the various seasons, often in ulta-unconventional fashion.   Not to be outdone, Brian Dixon offers a sterling piece about “second sight,” and the visualization in the series of Frank’s (often violent) “insights.”

On and on, one after the other, each essay is well-written, strongly-argued, and bolstered by a tremendous sense of passion….and emotional investment.  Again, the only obvious conclusion is that Millennium inspired those who engaged with it, and led them to think deeply about its meaning and value in our society.

I should add that this sense of inspiration goes well beyond the contributors of the specific pieces, and extends to editors Brian Dixon, Adam Chamberlain, James McLean, and Troy Foreman, the talents who boasted the dedication and determination to bring this 500 page book to market.  That means transcription of interviews.  That means careful proofreading.   That means deliberate, thoughtful organization of material.

And on this last front, organization, I was especially pleased to register how the book is structured. The text essentially takes us on a journey from Season One to Season Three, leaving no stone unturned along the way.  There’s logic and careful thought dictating the ordering of the contributions, and, frankly, that’s more than I can say about many anthology collections I’ve been involved with.

I also want to note James McLean’s piece here: “A History of the Back to Frank Black Campaign,” which reveals the hard work behind the effort to resurrect Millennium.  I already knew some of this information -- at a distance -- from my experience with the campaign, but I found it a fascinating read from an “inside baseball” perspective.  This contribution explores the “hows” and “whys” behind the existence of this book.

I haven’t written a traditional review here, I realize, in part because of my own involvement in the project.  But I just wanted to write today -- for the record -- that I am very proud and humbled to be a part of this book’s tapestry.   I hope that Millennium fans find it as satisfying and informative a read as I did, and that the book accomplishes its mission: sparking further the dedicated movement to resurrect Chris Carter’s often unheralded masterpiece.

7 comments:

  1. I know what I'm asking Krampus for.

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    1. Hi Randal,

      It's a purchase you won't regret. I've read the thing from front to back, and it is a great book. It's amazing.

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  2. John,

    What a fantastic story about the your yellow house. It really lets the reader know that you TRULY understand the significance of the yellow house in Millennium. I have always considered the yellow house another character on the show because of its understated importance.

    Great article on the book. It was an honor to have you be a part of this project. I think I can safely say that for a "fan" campaign, we have truly set the bar with this book. hey, we even got Morgan and Wong to talk Millennium with us when they refused to take part in the Season 2 DVD commentaries. I say that is a tremendous feat in and of itself.

    I think James' piece about the history of the campaign is as important as anything in the book. It lets people get a glimpse of what truly goes on behind the scenes with something like that. It's a tremendous amount of work, but we do it for the love of the show.

    This book is going to be the benchmark for any book that comes out on our beloved series Millennium. I am quite proud of that fact and humbled at the same time. From concept to execution, the book took around 15 months to get done. Kudos to everyone involved and thank you all for your tremendous work!

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    1. Troy,

      I agree with you about the yellow house. It symbolizes so much of what Millennium means, even in its absence.

      Every word in your comment about this book is accurate, I attest. You guys did an amazing, dedicated job here, and the results speak for themselves. I am proud to have this book on a shelf in my office, now.

      best,
      John

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  3. Anonymous11:59 AM

    John I am sorry that your wife and you had to suffer a burglary. However, thank you for sharing the story of your yellow house. Important history of your family and this Back to Frank Black book. I was wondering will you always paint your homes yellow? I understand if you do.

    SGB

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    1. Hi SGB:

      It was a learning experience, although we weren't that reflective about it at the time, naturally.

      Our new house is not, alas, yellow. I've come to realize that the yellow house is something that you can hold and nourish within, in a sense. I think that's a lesson Frank Black had to learn too.

      All my best, my friend,

      John

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  4. The account of your own yellow house is deeply personal, John, and I'm certain it's one that will resonate with anyone who felt a connection to Frank Black and Millennium. I'm glad you shared it here, and I'm glad that you enjoyed Back to Frank Black. We're eternally grateful that you were involved with the book. We couldn't have done it without you!

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